Two thousand years ago, in an area known as Bactria in northern Afghanistan, a hoard of glittering treasure comprising of silver, gold, glass and ivory wares, was buried, never to be seen again until the 20th century. The treasures unearthed revealed that Bactria was in fact a confluence of many cultures along the ancient Silk Road – Persian, Greek, Indian, Chinese and nomadic. The ‘Bactrian Hoard’, is now regarded as one of mankind’s most important cultural heritage.
Bactria already enjoyed a measure of interaction with Mesopotamia (present-day Iraq) and India during the Bronze Age (3000 to 1000 BC). The Achaemenid Persians incorporated Central Asia within their empire during the 6th century BC, an empire that Alexander the Great inherited when he routed the great king in a succession of victories. Alexander’s generals divided the empire after his death in 323 BC, and Bactria became the seat of a petty Greek dynasty during the 3rd century. The Greek connection introduced to Central Asia and India, many elements of Hellenistic art that were combined with local indigenous styles. Bactrian artists assimilated these influences into their own traditions, producing a highly syncretic form of art seen nowhere else.
The ‘Golden Cities’ of Bactria
Four sites contributed to the Bactrian Hoard. The first is Begram, an important trading center for the Greco-Bactrian kingdom from about 250 to 100 BC, which continued to thrive under the Kushan Empire in the first century AD. The objects unearthed from Begram included Chinese lacquer, hundreds of Indian-style ivory plaques recounting events from the life of Buddha, plaster medallions depicting Greek myths, and whimsical fish-shaped flasks of blown colored glass, the glassware most from Roman Egypt and Syria by sea.
Founded shortly after the death of Alexander the Great, Ai Khanum became the eastern outpost of Greek culture in Asia. Its artifacts reflect Greek and Indian, as well as local, artistic traditions. Objects unearthed in Ai Khanum included a small bronze figure of Hercules and a gilded silver plaque depicting Cybele, the Greek goddess of nature, riding in a Persian-style chariot.
Saving the best for last, Tillya Tepe is a relatively small and low mound situated in an oasis, on the left bank of the Oxus River in southern Bactria. The area stunned the world with a large hoard of objects in gold and other precious materials uncovered by Russian archaeologist Viktor Sarianidi in the 1970s. Altogether, Sarianidi found six graves – most likely belonging to wealthy or perhaps princely families – which yielded 20,000 artefacts, many of them gold and silver dating to the early centuries of the first millennium. The worked gold of the Tillya Tepe burials reveal a broad confluence of art traditions. Many showed a style that clearly borrowed from Greek legends, such as cupids riding dolphins, the goddess Aphrodite and scenes from the Dionysos myths. Other influences included Mediterranean, the ancient Near East, the Scythian steppe tradition, northern Indian and eastern Central Asia. This artistic synthesis created art objects that possess a rough vitality, a density of detail that is at once captivating and befitting the frontier setting that separates this region from its individual cultural sources.